Literary purists are invited to just pass over Word of Mouth

My turn

Posted: Monday, February 12, 2001

At times I get "opinion" fatigue when reading but another article blasting the Juneau Empire about its Word of Mouth column. The same rhetoric is used time after time. Labels like stupid, redundant, dishonorable, inaccurate, whining, half-baked, and warped have been attached to this novelty every since the Empire started publishing it.

These opinions also take issue with the Empire's tolerance of not requiring those contributing to this column to disclose their name. Those calling in comments are tagged as uncourageous, lacking backbone, gutless and conniving.

These journalistic purists continue to castigate the Empire for not following journalistic benchmarks such as "factually correct reporting," "journalistic integrity," "journalism standards of excellence" and "honest opinion gathering."

Some now accuse the Empire for clandestine reporting by indirectly divulging a contributor's identity and breaching the trust of anonymity as well as manipulative editing WOM's to project the Empire's viewpoint. We complain when the newspaper allows anonymity than chastise them when someone thinks they broke that sacred vow!

Before we start criticizing a newspaper organization for how they run their affairs we should evaluate what is acceptable journalism in this country and what reliance most subscribers place on what they read, understanding that each reader is vastly different based upon their upbringing, education, personal interests and beliefs.

Whether reading the opinion page or front page, any article is susceptible to political, socially acceptable, economical or personal ideological spin. The placement of articles on the front or back page of newspapers is also the prerogative of the publisher.

Whether readers expect the facts or just a fringe of objectivity, they get a smattering of all in any newspaper. Yet these literary white knights, who constantly criticize WOM, seldom choose to question other articles. Many were stoically silent when several government regulators came out with consistent air and water pollution reports naming the tourism industry as the culprit. Where were their opinions? Were they afraid of retribution in terms of reduced tourism revenue, not being invited to the next party or even losing their jobs? Or are we to believe they all feel water and noise pollution is not a problem?

There are numerous times when newspapers print articles centered on statements made to them by prominent residents, politicians, business people and even renown murderers. With just a little more investigative effort by news organizations, a more meaningful report enhancing the communicative value of newsprint would result.

A recent news article regarding the city's successful lawsuit in their efforts of collecting back taxes from pulltab operators was certainly newsworthy. But just a little more research would have revealed how ineffective this state program is when ensuring that money gets to the truly charitable programs in Alaska. Did this article meet standards of these scholarly precisionists or would it be too politically incorrect for them to complain?

Another article's headlines bellowed out the phrase, "Ashcroft pledges fair, politics-free Justice Dept." Now come on. After watching Janet Reno legally maneuver to protect both Clinton and Gore over the last eight years and having Bush win the Presidency by a partisan vote of 5-4, does anyone really believe this? Would our word splitters consider this inaccurate reporting or choose to call this political puffery?

The point is not to criticize newspaper reporting considered acceptable in the industry but merely recognize the tolerance readers have for newsprint. Some readers may take the print of words as the gospel but I can hardly believe most people do. The consistent intolerance for WOM by a certain minority of people in this community leads one to wonder what are the real reasons of their disdain for this column.

WOM will never win the Pulitzer Prize. It is appropriately placed in the opinion section of the Empire next to the politically incorrect cartoons. Nonetheless it gives those, whom for whatever reason, an opportunity to express their opinions, many of which may be politically incorrect but just the same, do reflect a degree of sentiment about our town. At the same time it allows a certain freedom of expression without the fear of retribution always present in a society clothed in threadbare civility.

For those who find WOM or this letter offensive, the answer is simple - ignore it and turn the page.

Merle Jenson is a Juneau CPA.

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